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Kyrgyzstan: Amendments to Terrorism Law Will Create New Restrictions for Media

The new draft law of the State National Security Committee of Kyrgyzstan on amendments to the Civil Procedure Code, as well as to the law “On countering terrorism” are an attempted pressure against the freedom of speech and control of dissenting media, experts say. 

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According to the background statement to the document, the purpose of suggested amendments is to “ensure harmonisation of laws and regulations of the republic in the sphere of countering terrorism.” However, the media community sees threats for the work of independent media. 

Photo courtesy of Azamat Kasybekov

“This initiative is full of risks for the journalist community, therefore we call on the security officials to recall it and refine it jointly. It is sad that when a law related to media is about to be adopted, they never consult journalists. This practice puts an end to the freedom of speech – the basis of development of democratic society,” Azamat Kasybekov, chair of the Independent Union of Journalists of the Kyrgyz Republic, said to CABAR.asia.

The State National Security Committee (GKNB) has proposed Amendments to the Civil Procedure Code, as well as to law “On countering terrorism”  for public discussion at the end of March, soon after the state of emergency was declared in the country due to coronavirus pandemic.

This practice puts an end to the freedom of speech – the basis of development of democratic society.

Moreover, the agency asks to consider it out of schedule as urgent. The drafters of amendments have not given a clear answer as to why the document needs to be adopted in a hurry and without proper public discussion.

Institute Media Policy Public Foundation has analysed the suggested amendments. Lawyers of the organisation came to a conclusion that they conflict with the applicable laws and also create conditions for tightening of control over media.

In their opinion, the initiative of GKNB, if the law is adopted, can turn the anti-extremism law of the republic into a tool of suppression of rights and liberties of a person and a citizen, according to experts. The main target in this situation will be independent media organisations, whose activity at any time can be found extremist by the state and who can be suspended on that ground.

Draft law vests non-relevant functions on media organisations

The existing law “On countering extremist activity” restricts the right to liberty and freedom of expression in the majority of extremist activities. Moreover, according to experts, the statutory wording can be widely interpreted and formal matter lets us qualify many expressions and materials as extremist.

The amendments proposed by GKNB suggest that if information materials are found extremist or terrorist, the organisation that distributed them will automatically be found as such, which will result in the liquidation of a legal entity.

“So, this law allows closing a media outlet that spreads information without knowing it is extremist. This norm obviously enables law enforcement bodies to abuse their powers and open numerous unjustified criminal cases in these categories,” according to the report.

However, media organisations are reported to cover various events in their everyday activities by producing and distributing interviews, news items, analytical materials, etc. Their functions do not include analysis of compliance with law “On countering extremist activity”. Moreover, this analysis implies specific knowledge in philology, linguistics and law.

Draft law allows forced closure of media outlets promptly

If amendments are passed, they will allow the authorities apply the prompt mechanism of recognising an organisation, including media outlet, as terrorist or extremist. The procedure will take 3-5 days.

Lawyers of the Institute Media Policy think this is unacceptable and illegal as it is impossible to analyse the organisation’s activity thoroughly and fully for such a short term.

According to article 11 of the law of the Kyrgyz Republic “On countering extremist activity”, the following things need to be proved to terminate activity:

  • Violation of citizen’s rights and liberties,
  • Infliction of harm to a person, health of citizens, environment, public order, public security, property, legal economic interests of individuals and (or) legal entities, public and state,
  • Real threat of such harm.

These facts can be substantiated by court on the basis of relevant examinations – philological,  linguistic and political. Expert studies can be interdisciplinary, repeated, and performed by a commission. They cannot be performed within three days.

Media Lose Right to Protect

Moreover, amendments suggest that a case of closure of a media organisation can be considered without respondent’s participation.

“As a result, when an organisation learns it is recognised as extremist or terrorist, it can go to a supervisory agency, namely the Supreme Court of the Kyrgyz Republic. However, it is an instance where one cannot submit new evidences, invite new witnesses. The Supreme Court may consider only materials that have been examined by the court of first instance. In other words, the organisation loses procedural rights to protect its interests,” according to the report of the Institute of Media Policy.

Rally in support of the freedom of speech, media and against corruption. December 18, 2019. Photo: sputnik.kg

Vindictive legislation

Kyrgyzstan has had already cases when anti-extremism law has been used to put strain on the media and close unwanted newspapers and TV channels. 2017 was a year when information field was cleansed amid the presidential election.

Courtesy of Zulpukar Sapanov

In July 2017, journalist of Uchur newspaper, Zulpukar Sapanov, was tried on a charge of inciting interethnic hatred because of the publication of book ‘Kydyr Sanzhyrasy’.

The representatives of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan (DUMK) found it outrageous that the author wrote that the clergy were enforcing trust in Allah. According to the muftiat, the book by Sapanov injured the spiritual values of the Muslims.

The investigation was done by the State National Security Committee. The trial of the journalist was held in September. He was found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison, although Sapanov pleaded not guilty.

Ombudsman Kubat Otorbaev called the court verdict “a return to the inquisition”. The journalist’s lawyers appealed the court judgement and he was sentenced to two-year suspended term.

Ulugbek Babakulov on the Station of Lyon in Paris. Photo by the author

In May 2017, the journalist of Fergana Ulukbek Babakulov published article “People as beasts. The Kyrgyz-speaking segment of social media voices calls on violence against the ‘sarts’”. The material about the fight between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of Kyrgyzstan that took place, according to the journalist, on an ethnic basis, was full of aggressive anti-Uzbek comments of social media users.

Soon after that, the authorities blocked Fergana website in Kyrgyzstan and GKNB opened a criminal case against Babakulov. In June of the same year, the journalist left the country because of the fear of arrest for his activities.

In February 2019, according to 24.kg, France granted political asylum to the journalist.

In September 2016, opposition channel Sentyabr showed the interview with the former high official of the law enforcement bodies Abdylda Kaparov, where he expressed his opinion about the situation in the country.

In August 2017, the Prosecutor-General’s Office filed a lawsuit against Sentyabr TV channel and asked for its closure. It accused the channel of broadcasting “extremist” content. However, the court failed to examine evidence as there was no record of Abdylda Kaparov’s interview in case materials, and the linguistic examination of another video material was available.

Representatives of the channel tried to challenge the judgment saying that this material was aired on analogue TV in Dzhalal Abad back in 2016 and had nothing to do with the digital Sentyabr channel. However, the Pervomaisky court of Bishkek found that the TV channel distributed calls for ethnic or religious intolerance and ordered to close it. The TV channel stopped its activity on September 28, 2017, but then changed its name to Zhalbyrak TV and continued broadcasting on the internet.

Expert community at a loss

On May 6, Harlem Désir, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, wrote on Twitter that the organisation is concerned about the amendments to the law on terrorism suggested by  GKNB. He noted that these amendments may have a negative impact on the activity of the media and freedom of speech.

“I call on the authorities to bring amendments in line with international standards,” Harlem Désir wrote.

The draft law was criticised by Kyrgyz human rights defenders. The lawyer of Bir Duino human rights movement, Khusanbai Saliev, noted that according to the new draft law by GKNB, court decisions on extremist materials are referred to relevant law enforcement bodies. Now such decisions are being referred to the ministry of justice, which, in turn, compiles a list of materials that were found extremist. It is available to the citizens.

Хусанбай Салиев. Photo: labourcentralasia.org

“It means that anyone can have access to it and understand what information material is found extremist just to be on the safe side. The new law denies people this opportunity,” Saliev said.

Also, the human rights defender emphasised that the amendments confuse the notions of ‘extremist’ and ‘terrorism’.

“The new and old law have such a notion as a terrorist material. What is the meaning of this notion? I don’t understand it. I checked other countries and they don’t have this notion. The word terrorism means the use of violent actions that threaten the society and the state, in other words, it is the action. In what way this notion refers to the journalistic material?” he said.

According to Saliev, the main thing of any law is the precision and clarity for interpreting its articles for further application. Unclear notions in the law enhance the likelihood of its interpretation to anyone’s benefit.

Media expert Azamat Tynaev noted that recent initiatives by the State National Security Committee regarding public life, including the lobbying of amendments to the law “On not-for-profit organisations”, cannot be called justified and necessary: 

The freedom of speech is the integral right of every citizen. For media, it is the most necessary and the main condition for their work. Based on recent arrests of bloggers, publications on GKNB’s website of video apologies of citizens for their posts in social media, we can infer how the current initiative of the agency will apply in future to media organisations and certain journalists.

Since the emergence of the first data about coronavirus, GKNB of Kyrgyzstan started to find people who spread unofficial information about COVID-19, marked as fake on social media and messengers. GKNB called in such citizens for a talk and then the press service distributed videos where the Kyrgyzstanis apologised to media outlets.

The flow of video apologies stopped after the users of the Kyrgyz segment of internet launched flashmob in social media in support of doctor Bektur Apyshev, who was forced to apologise for his Twitter post about the lack of personal protective equipment in medical workers that is needed to work in coronavirus pandemic.

On February 17, blogger Elmirbek Sydymanov was detained on suspicion of inciting interregional hatred. He was arrested for two months. The reason was a video on Instagram where he told bad things about the residents of southern regions of the republic. The young man apologised for his speech and was later released for home arrest.

In November 2019, blogger Aftandil Zhorobekov, the admin of Bespredel.kg and Bespredel.kg group on Facebook, was also detained on suspicion of inciting interregional hatred. He wrote a few posts criticising the authorities. GKNB found comments to it as inciting “hatred among people”.

According to Azamat Tynaev, no extra legislative instruments but the current law “On mass media” are needed in Kyrgyzstan to regulate the media sphere. Despite the fact that it was adopted in 1992, it is in line with international standards and allows regulation of any issues related to the media.

The expert emphasised that the amendments suggested by GKNB are punitive tools against journalists because media workers today cannot count on fair trials.

Azamat Tynaev. Photo: kabar.kg

“As long as the justice system of Kyrgyzstan is recognised, according to all rankings, as one of the most corrupt, and remains puppet and controlled by the authorities, which is evidenced by many facts, we cannot accept such amendments,” Tynaev said.

According to him, Kyrgyzstan should replace punitive measures with the tools of media self-regulation. He confirmed that there are many media outlets in the country that are not aware of international standards and ethical principles of journalism.

“The weirdest thing is that such “shadow” media outlets are never prosecuted by the authorities, never face claims for great amounts as we can see from the history of relations between the state and the media. I wonder why our colleagues from law-abiding media who do their job decently are always persecuted. The only thing the authorities don’t like about them is that they tell the troublesome truth,” the media expert said.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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